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The Problem in the European Union

Several challenges such as Brexit, the refugee problem, the Russian aggression in Ukraine and the economic discord between the core and the peripheral European countries, have given rise to debates over the survivability of the EU as a unified entity.

European Union
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Trivun Sharma |

With the victory of Viktor Orban in Hungary, two things have become clear in European geopolitics. One is that the wave of anti-EU parties is gaining prominence and is becoming a defining feature as far as relations between Brussels and the countries in Central and Eastern Europe is concerned. Second, German leadership in the EU is proving ineffective to lead the block as a cohesive unit.

In fact, the inability to formulate a common response that considers the interest to all EU member states, while dealing with the many challenges for instances; Brexit, the refugee problem, the Russian aggression in Ukraine and the economic discord between core and the peripheral European countries, have given rise to debates over the survivability of the EU as a unified entity.

The Economic Core in European Union and the Expectations from EU

The European Union was the result of the Maastricht Treaty, whose underlining feature was ensuring peace and prosperity on the European continent. After the 2008 financial crisis, economic prosperity in much of the European countries was challenged. In fact, southern European countries, for example, Greece and Italy were among the worst hit countries in the world following the global economic slowdown in 2008.

Taking in refugees in their thinking would cause problems in their own society given both the cultural and economic arguments. For Berlin and Brussels, the point of emphasis remained that the primary identity of all EU member is their European culture and that the collective good would lie in supporting migration.

Add to it, the German handling of the Greek debt situation in the form of severe austerity measures, further alienated the sense of economic management and burden sharing between the core and the periphery. (The economic core in the EU consists of countries like Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and France while Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain constitute the peripheries).

In other words, where the Greeks thought that the EU would find solutions to their economic problems, the Germans thought of it as burden sharing something which they were not willing to do. Hence, when the economic relief package was rolled out to Greece, it came with the added burden of austerity measures, which Greece had to implement. By imposing austerities and declining any talks on debt forgiveness or burden sharing, Berlin made one thing clear, it was not willing to tolerate economic incompetency.

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Economic incompetency is one of the reasons why, Angela Merkel and her conservative party are skeptical about the plans to create a European Monetary Fund and establish a European deposit insurance scheme, as proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron. Similarly, in 2014 when the Ukrainian crisis erupted the most tensed and worried countries other than Ukraine were Poland, Romania, and the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Where these countries demanded a strong response to the Russian aggression in Ukraine, the German leadership opted for a diplomatic solution. The diplomatic effort did result in the Minsk II agreement; however, the agreement failed to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine; in the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. For Poland and the Baltic States, the threat of Russian aggression is real and ever-present. This explains why these countries are among the few countries that contribute more than 2 percent of their GDP to the NATO budget and their enhanced military engagements with the United States.

Europe was a Viable Market for Germany

For Germany, this is not the case. Germany today is surrounded by markets, not by enemies as it was during World War II and the Cold War. Today, the whole of Europe represents a viable market for German products and Russia as the source of affordable energy for German companies. In fact, the German economy is dependent on exports primarily to the European markets and cheap energy from Russia.

Brexit, the refugee problem, the Russian aggression in Ukraine and the economic discord between core and the peripheral European countries, have given rise to debates over the survivability of the EU as a unified entity. 

In this regard, even though Angela Merkel spearheads the cause of economic sanctions against Russia, the German government makes sure that some of its most important projects with Russia are not brought to risk. The case in point is the Nord Stream II pipeline which is a joint project between German and Austrian companies and Russia’s Gazprom. Nord Stream 2 will enable Russia to directly deliver gas to Germany without the need to use existing pipelines through Ukraine.

Although the pipeline project has been criticized by the European Commission and several countries like Poland, Ukraine and the United States, for enabling Moscow’s to continue its political dominance over European energy supplies, Germany views the project as another way of securing its energy needs, thereby protecting the interest of the German companies. In fact, the policy of economic engagement with Russia, Ostpolitik, has often been criticized for being too lenient on Russia and puts Germany’s interests at odds with the larger interest of other European countries.

Read more: Continued Russian gas transit through Ukraine: European Union’s top priority

Adding further to the divide of interests is the issue of how countries within the EU should function. EU functions on certain values that are to be followed by all the countries that become part of the bloc. The values refer to the respect for human rights, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities . . . in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.

For Germany, ensuring that each country follows these values is important from the viewpoint of its own identity as a civilian power. Civilian power is the one that necessities on factors such as ensuring cooperation with countries in the pursuit of international objectives, concentration on non-military and economic means to secure foreign policy goals and the willingness to develop supranational structures to address issues relating to foreign policy and economic management.

Germany Expected the European Union to Standby its Values and each Member Country to Accept a Number of Refugees

Following this, when the crisis in Syria escalated and resulted in the massive influx of refugees to the European continent, Germany decided to handle the situation by wanting all member states to accept a certain number of Muslim refugees. Populist leaders in countries like Hungary and Poland refused to comply with the German wishes and demands, arguing that their country has a national identity and culture that needed to be preserved.

This explains why these countries are among the few countries that contribute more than 2 percent of their GDP to the NATO budget and their enhanced military engagements with the United States.

Taking in refugees in their thinking would cause problems in their own society given both the cultural and economic arguments. For Berlin and Brussels, the point of emphasis remained that the primary identity of all EU member is their European culture and that the collective good would lie in supporting migration. However, the populist leaders in Poland and Hungary continue to see this as a German imposition on what is best for the German interest should be done and followed by the bloc.

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The major issue in the EU still revolves around ensuring peace and prosperity. The problem lies in the fact that, the way EU thought of achieving this was primarily through economic means. Hence, as the economic divide between the core and the peripheral countries widens and Berlin’s dubious policy of responding to Russian aggression continues to be in place and does not change, the notion of national self-determination among the eastern European countries is only going to grow stronger. This may not necessarily result in the breakup of the European Union, but national self-determination will continue to be the main frame of European geopolitics. The victory of Viktor Orban in Hungary only solidifies this claim.

Trivun Sharma is a Ph.D. candidate at the Faculty of Political Science and International Studies, University of Warsaw, Poland. His working thesis is entitled, “Changing Dynamics of European Geopolitics: A Case of Russia and Germany”. His primary research interests include European geopolitics, the role of Germany in Europe and Russia’s foreign and security policy. The writer can be contacted at trivunsharma@gmail.com. The views expressed in this article are authors own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.


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